“You want there to be problems to solve”, said Emma Hayes on co-coms at around the 60th minute of the game. After a long and tiring season, the Lionesses’ return to the Molineux for the first time since their Arnold Clark Cup victory in February appeared comfortable on the surface, but showed weaknesses in the team that could prove troublesome for stronger opponents in the upcoming euros.
For the game itself, the first 45 frustratingly left the Lionesses goalless as they scuffed shots off target again and again, and a goal only came in the second half when Kelly put the Lionesses ahead through a cross that was converted into a goal by a Belgian defender. Daly converted from a corner and Williamson scored the third in a similar way with a little help from a goalkeeper deflection.
In the build-up to these 3 pre-Euros fixtures, the games were touted as time for the England squad to learn and develop ahead of the Euros, and this fixture against Belgium was an eye-opener. Maybe we all have our rose-tinted Arnold Clark Cup glasses on, but there are a few kinks that may need ironing out before the tournament starts on the 6th July. We will focus on 3 key points; the formation change, sluggish set pieces, and shooting practice.
I also do not want this to come across as overly critical, realistically the Lionesses won 3-0 with 64% possession. Although at points it wasn’t pretty, in the tournament over the summer, a 3-0 win is a 3-0 win. There were however a few points that need addressing for when England plays teams that know how to exploit their weaknesses.
Ok ladies now let’s get in formation
Sarina had opted for a 4-3-3 formation in this fixture, moving away from the 4-2-3-1 double-pivot we had come to know and love during the team’s pursuit of the Arnold Clark Cup. Back in February, we saw both Keira Walsh and captain Leah Williamson focusing on the CDM role, working out from the back and addressing any cover needed when Bronze or Stokes pushed further forward throughout the games. In this fixture, we saw Williamson taking more of a playmaker role in the number 8, as Walsh remained in that CDM role.
Although Williamson has grown into this newfound midfield position, and her presence further forward on the pitch is being converted into chances (and a goal later in the game!); as she is not there as the CDM to support the defence, the centre backs were left vulnerable as the fullbacks struggled to track back in time. On a few occasions, the Belgians cut apart the defence as they exploited the space that Walsh was forced to cover; although they did not score, if the Lionesses were facing teams like Norway with a strong creative midfield and attack as they will in the group stages, they may test Earps at a greater capacity than her singular shot stop this fixture.
This seemed to improve in the second half as Greenwood came on for Wubben Moy, and Daly for Stokes, as both players looked spritelier in their attempt at tracking back in comparison to their first half counterparts. Greenwood’s vision especially helped the Lionesses to push the ball forward, but at a fixture heavy period like the Euros, where squad depth is a key to success, maybe this would be an area to consider strengthening going forward.
No sh*t free kicks! – (Mary Earps in Latvia v England 2021)
There was an interesting disparity during this fixture in the quality of the set pieces taken. Maybe that plays into the difference in the Lionesses’ performance between the first and second half, but in the first especially the players seemed to lash out when given the opportunity to take these set pieces. Notably there was a number of corners taken quickly without direction, and a free kick taken poorly on the edge of the box in a dangerous position at the back end of the first half. They seemed to reach slightly too high or slightly too wide of the players.
The game seemed to miss the club form of Alessia Russo in respect to set piece performance and her wonderful ability to head home a cross; whether it be from a corner or a cross, as the chances fell just in the wrong places. I wondered whether Wiegman had missed out by benching her in this fixture (and in extension to that, leaving Zelem and her set piece prowess out of the 23), especially with the number of chances that were not converted in the first half; but these fixtures are a time to try something new – and if the Lionesses come away from this game hungry to go to training and do FIFA like free kick drills, I assume we will all be winners.
In fairness, two of the goals scored in the second half were from almost identical corners, and it should be praised that Daly scored hers from a clean hit on the 4th phase off of play from that said corner. However, if we are going to be really picky, if it had got to someone’s head and in the back of the net the first time it was crossed in, then you wouldn’t have to worry about scrambling for the loose ball. Two stars and a wish I guess. However, that does bring us nicely to the final point of this piece…
It’s not in the back of the net!
It is a phrase that has bounced around the England set up, and really, any football set up across the country; “clinical finishing”. It did get better in the second half, that is true, but still, 25 shots, 10 on target, and only 1 goal was counted as a goal by an England player throughout the game. It seems to have been said time and time again, but even earlier in the World Cup qualifiers, although England were producing eyewatering score lines; the teams conversion rate was still, at best average, and at worst, poor.
Is the answer a new England number 9? Over the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, every single one of the Team GB goals that was counted for a GB player was scored by Ellen White. We have seen since Wiegman’s takeover, that goals have come from a wide variety of players; Ella Toone, Lauren Hemp, Georgia Stanway, Beth Mead, and most notably Millie Bright, to name just a few. White struggled in this fixture and was subbed, England tried to provide that finishing job, and by the time the final whistle blew 3 had been scored.
Hopefully in the upcoming tournament, the brilliance of Hemp and Mead, both players in the team this game who were unafraid to pull the trigger and take the shot will be able to link up with someone who can get that ball on target.
So, in conclusion, what should the Lionesses do?
Amongst other things, in the words of captain Williamson after their World Cup Qualifier against North Macedonia back in September – “Shooting practice for everybody tomorrow!”